San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Posted on Mon, Mar. 11, 2002

Help wanted: women to lead the valley

By Debra Engel and Kim Walesh

At times of trouble, people ask where are the leaders? After a period of unprecedented prosperity, Silicon Valley faces two harsh realities. To sustain this place and its people over the long run, we need to tackle tough, systemic issues in areas like housing, education and human welfare. And, the generation that steered Silicon Valley through the 1980s and 1990s is moving on from active leadership roles.

Now is the time to recognize the increasing ways that women are leaders in our region, and to create new ways to pull more women from all sectors and backgrounds into civic leadership.

Since the late 1970s, this region has proved fertile ground for women in political leadership. And women have long played critically important roles as builders and sustainers of community in schools, neighborhoods and civic organizations.

But as the role of women in the economy increased, the role of women in the community can grow beyond political leadership and traditional volunteering. A new generation of women leaders -- successful in business, technology and the professions -- represents a vastly talented but largely untapped source of leadership for Silicon Valley.

A new report, "Untapped Potential: Women's Civic Leadership in Silicon Valley,'' released by Women of Silicon Valley and Community Foundation Silicon Valley, identifies seven kinds of leaders who want to, and could, contribute more.

These include women who have achieved business or financial success and want to pursue "second careers'' as philanthropic, community or political leaders. Other important pools of talent include young newcomers, women who are temporarily taking time out from their careers (by choice or by chance), and women who have credibility and connections in growing ethnic and immigrant communities. And female senior executives in large valley companies are often overlooked for civic opportunities because they do not have the title of CEO.

Across the board, women have important new perspectives, resources and skills to contribute to the civic arena, and less time. Today, fully 86 percent of women in Silicon Valley between the ages of 21 and 61 are employed or expect to enter the workforce in the next two years. Fifty-two percent work in the tech sector; 15 percent are entrepreneurs. Sixty-nine percent have primary or shared responsibility for making philanthropic decisions in their household.

To tap the potential of women leaders, we need creative approaches in four key areas.

First, we need to make it easier for residents to figure out how to get involved in the community. The valley has an extensive network of people and organizations to help people advance their "paid work'' careers -- assess their skills and interests, explore job opportunities, make a thoughtful match. We need a similar network to help people develop their "civic careers.''

Second, we need to create customized, flexible opportunities for people to contribute time and skills to public benefit organizations and civic initiatives. People want options for involvement that require a commitment somewhere between traditional board service and one-time volunteer events, such as project roles and adviser roles.

Third, we should turn the workplace and professional networks into more effective channels for people to get involved in civic leadership. Only a handful of companies today encourage civic participation as a tool for professional skill building and employee retention. Meetings of professional associations can expose members to civic issues and involvement opportunities.

Last, we must strengthen and connect women's networks across communities and generations. In interviews and the survey, women expressed strong interest in working together to pool their resources and address issues they understand firsthand.

One way this is happening is the Million Dollar Women's Club for HomeSafe. More than 50 women who met through their business careers are working with seven public benefit organizations to raise funds and provide leadership to develop four transitional housing complexes for battered women and their children in Santa Clara County.

In the process, we are pulling a new generation of women into civic leadership, adding to the latest chapter of women's diverse and powerful contributions to lasting change in our community.

Debra Engel chairs the board of Community Foundation Silicon Valley and is co-founder of the Million Dollar Women's Club for HomeSafe. Kim Walesh is director of Collaborative Economics and co-author of "Untapped Potential: Women's Civic Leadership in Silicon Valley,'' available at


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